Squats are a staple strength training exercise, but how deep should you squat to protect your knees? Squats are one of the most essential strength training exercises. However, there has long been a debate over how deep to squat safely to avoid injury, especially to the knees. Opinions among experts are mixed. Some fitness experts have cautioned against squatting deeper than 50 degrees of knee flexion out of fear of putting excessive pressure on knee joints and connective tissue.
Navigating the Squat Debate: How Deep is Safe?
Recently though, researchers did a comprehensive review of the biomechanics of deep squatting to get to the bottom of this hotly disputed topic. Evaluating numerous studies on joint forces during squats revealed interesting and unexpected insights. It turns out that the peak force within the knee joint occurs at 90 degrees of flexion. This means that partial squats stopping above or near parallel don’t spare the knees more stress than going beyond parallel and doing full range of motion squats.
In fact, going into a deeper squat position beyond 90 degrees reduces force across the knee joint. This counterintuitive result stems from a wrapping effect created by contact between the calves and thighs during maximum squat depth. This additional muscle compression increases stability in the knee and enhances force distribution, in effect protecting knee structures rather than adding harm.
Squat Safely: Guidelines for Joint-Friendly Squatting
Furthermore, evidence indicates that with gradual progression, joints and connective tissues like ligaments can adapt to the demands of loaded deep squats in their final range of motion. Proper coaching is still key though for technique, such as ensuring the knees track over the toes.
The implications of this newer research are that with sufficient conditioning and practice, the full squat pattern may be the healthiest option for most exercisers looking to incorporate squatting movements. Though past warnings come from a sensible place, they may overstate the risks of deep squatting and underestimate how much the body can accommodate when slowly acclimated. Of course, individual differences must always be factored in as well when designing any exercise prescription.
The debate over deep squats has often centered specifically around knee health. However, experts have raised key points recently about how squat depth impacts other joints as well. Looking beyond just the knees reveals a more complex picture.
Hip Health Alert: Navigating the Depths of Squatting
Although deep squats seem to distribute forces more evenly across the knee joint, the story changes a bit for the hip joint. Research has shown that extremely deep squats beyond 130 degrees of flexion can ratchet up forces on the hip. So, for those worried about hip health, you might want to stick to a squat depth of 90 degrees.
Another interesting nuance is that partial squats using heavy weights can potentially be harder on the knees over time compared to going heavy on full-depth squats. The reason is shearing forces and compression seem to concentrate more locally on knee structures during the partial movement.
So where does this leave us? The verdict is that properly executed deep squats that go at least to parallel are safe for the knees and can effectively strengthen tissues around these joints when loaded progressively. Descending farther seems to engage more supportive musculature and favorably disperse forces.
However, each joint has its limits, so aim to avoid compromising technique at the bottom and consider the hips too when gauging appropriate squat depth for you. Under guidance, though, and given proper form, the potential of the deep squat to build durable knees and legs is clear. Committing to full range of motion with weights over time following gradual buildup can lead to big wins in joint resilience and function.
Squat Safely: Guidelines for Joint-Friendly Squatting
Get Loose First
Do dynamic stretches and moves to increase warmth, blood flow, and range of motion before squatting. This gets muscles and joints primed for the work ahead. You don’t want to work muscles that are cold and stiff.
Plant feet shoulder-width apart or wider as needed for balance. Angling toes out a bit can help facilitate deeper squatting motion.
Brace Your Core
Keep your core engaged by focusing tension on the trunk muscles to stabilize the spine from start to finish.
Lead With Your Hips
Initiate sitting back and down through the movement by hinging from the hips. Let them drift back as if hovering over a chair behind you. This taps the glutes and hamstrings more than the knees early on.
Direct knees forward over feet throughout to disperse forces evenly across knee structures during descent.
How Low Can You Go?
Descend until thighs reach parallel or beyond if flexible enough without rounding your lower back. Avoid collapsing forward or letting heels come off the ground.
Use deliberate, steady motion during the descent and ascent. Harness muscle strength over momentum.
Inhale Down, Exhale Up
Pair breathing with movement. Inhale going down, exhale pressing back up.
Rack It Right
When using a barbell, carefully place it on the upper back, not the neck, with hands grasping the outside shoulders. Utilize racks for easier loading/unloading.
Check Your Shape
Watch your form in a mirror if possible. Is the spine staying neutral? Weight balanced? Adjust as needed.
Increase demands progressively over time to allow tissues to adapt. Don’t rush to increase depth or weight.
Tune Into Your Body
Pay attention to pain signals suggesting injury risk. Sharp knee pains? Twinges in the back? Consult a trainer if unsure.
The debate around deep squatting for years warned of dangers to joint health, scaring people away from going below parallel. However, the latest science shows that when performed correctly, deep squats may be safer in many regards. Clearly, the stigma around “glutes-to-grass” squats needs reexamining.
While reasonable precautions regarding technique and load are warranted, the durable, resilient knees and legs of deep squatters speak for themselves. With strong guidance and a progressive approach, we can reap the benefits of deep squatting from improved mobility to reduced injury risks.
So, trust the process and free yourself from the shackles of the half-squat—your joints and muscles may thank you. Assure technique is on point, build depth gradually over time, and listen to your body every rep of the way. Soon you’ll unlock new athletic potential and come to love the secretly safe embrace of a deep squat when executed mindfully. Just don’t forget to get back up!
- Wretenberg, P., Feng, Y., Lindberg, F., & Arboreilus, U. (1993). Joint moments of force and quadriceps muscle activity during squatting exercise. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 3. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0838.1993.tb00389.x.
- Hartmann, H., Wirth, K., & Klusemann, M. (2013). Analysis of the Load on the Knee Joint and Vertebral Column with Changes in Squatting Depth and Weight Load. Sports Medicine, 43, 993-1008. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0073-6.
- Schlegel, P., Agricola, A., & Fialová, D. (2021). Deep Squat – Should We Be Afraid? . https://doi.org/10.5817/sts2021-1-3.